Exposing a Serial Plagiarist: Rolf Dobelli

                 

Fulfilling my civic duties

UPDATE: The UK edition (which sold the bulk of the English language copies since the book flopped in the U.S.) does not have a citation section, making the defense that he cited me "30+ times" a complete misrepresentation. Some of my readers also showed evidence that he also plagiarizes my lectures! (See his YouTube lectures)

Withdrawal of endorsements/testimonials and apologies to my readers: I owe my readers an apology for endorsing a man based on limited information. I have known Dobelli for a while and never read him as his work was in German. I thought he was a novelist. From conversations with him, I was under the impression that he was writing a book on cognitive biases from a novelist's point of view... I trusted what he said I gave him an endorsement thinking he would do a good job as a novelist (I was careful to endorse the person, not the book). I also introduced him to my agent and pushed for his book to be published.

But I was completely shocked when, after I got a copy of the book at his New York book party, I opened the English version of the book. I was never told that he was going to include my own ideas (i.e. "summarize"). I saw passages from my work transcribed, examples rapidly copied, with small modifications, chapters that are entirely from my books without added material... where is the novelist? Worse: I also saw the use of citations to obfuscate rather than show origin (and of course the bulk of the English language books sold had NO citations). Sadly, it took a decade to discover the nature of a man whose works I had never read.

But it is not the plagiarism that upset me: the breach of trust. For I googled "via negativa" and saw he rewrote sections of my manuscript in Zeit without attribution (and added it as a chapter in the end). The manuscript I entrusted him with, that fuck!  And Dobelli keeps posting sections on his Facebook Page that were lifted from my book (as if they were his own). Even the idea of 99 chapters corresponded to my project to publish "99 (convex) heuristics". So I withdraw all comments made about him, his work, and, of course, his ethics. And I resign from Zurich Minds, Berlin Minds, and all other think tanks Dobelli asked me to join.

It took several months before reaching the conclusion that it was imperiative to out him, as the Dobelli fellow did not exist as an author in the U.S., where outing him could bring publicity, only in German and in the self-help sections in the U.K. I was reminded by my friends: "If you see fraud and do not shout fraud, you are a fraud".

 

Other authors. It appears that there are 5 unreferenced passages from Chabris and Simons's The Invisible Gorilla and some passages from Kathryn Schulz.

Probabilities compound, don't add. The next graph illustrates a probabilistic approach to the general problem of plagiarism and how if a few examples might be OK, many are way too many (particularly in a short book). No matter how much weight one assigns to each event, the joint probability eventually rises to the same evidence (the graph is general, not adapted to the specific purpose). So while many single instances may not on their own qualify as plagiarism, the ensemble (adding to it the public lectures and the Facebook posts) shows overwhelming evidence that Rolf Dobelli is a plagiarist.

Plagiarism is not exegesis. An interpretation of other's texts with commentary is not plagiarism; paraphrasing their ideas while making it pass for exegesis is.

 

 

 

 

Rolf Dobelli translated and summarized the section on via negativa from the  unpublished manuscript  of Antifragile (with which he was entrusted) in a German newspaper Zeit, with no sourcing and attribution.  And published it before Antifragile. Then he put an English version in his book. Same examples (Michelangelo), same wording, same ideas. (Note: the article passes our strong test here: there was about nothing in the way of ideas in Dobelli's chapter/article that was not in Book VI of Antifragile and the idea as a whole was not discussed anywhere. In that sense it is the strongest form of "borrowing", worse than copying paragraphs).

 

NOTE THAT THIS DISCUSSION IS NOT ABOUT WHETHER IT IS A VIOLATION OF  (SWISS, MONGOLIAN OR SERBIAN) COPYRIGHT LAWS BUT RATHER IF IT IS PLAGIARIZING SOMEONE ELSE'S WORK WHILE MAKING SOME OF IT PASS FOR ONE'S OWN, A SERIOUS ETHICAL/INTELLECTUAL VIOLATION IN INTELLECTUAL LIFE (JOURNALISM AND ACADEMIA) AS PERCEIVED IN THE STATE OF NEW YORK .

 

IN THE ENGLISH VERSION

 

Newly Found Passage (Sept 15, 2013):

 

Taleb

I was thinking about calling my third cousin Antiochus this morning when the phone rang. Miracle! It was him on the other line; this confirms my developed sixth sense! This is a great omen except that perhaps I should wake up and take into account the number of times when I thought about calling him without his calling me; the times when he called me without my thinking about calling him; and, most significantly, the numerous occurrences of my not thinking about him, and him not trying to call me. (passage from the still unpublished MS of The Black Swan sent to Dobelli in full trust)

 

Dobelli

Something last week made me think of my old school friend, Andy, whom I hadn’t spoken to in a long time. Suddenly the phone rang. I picked it up, and, lo and behold, it was Andy. “I must be telepathic!” I exclaimed excitedly. But telepathy or coincidence? Let’s apply some thinking here. Keep in mind the many occasions when “Andy” thinks of you but doesn’t call; when you think of him and he doesn’t call; when you don’t think of him and he calls; when he doesn’t think of you and you call. . . .

 

 ***


Taleb

I had dinner at the bar of a Tribeca restaurant with Lauren Rose, a trader who was reading an early draft of this book. We flipped a coin to see who was going to pay for the meal. I lost and paid. He was about to thank me when he abruptly stopped and said that he paid for half of it probabilistically. He thought for a moment and said, “Considering the alternative paths, you’ve actually already paid for half of this dinner.” (Fooled by Randomness)

 

Dobelli

Recently, I was at a dinner with an American friend who suggested tossing a coin to decide who should pay the bill.   He lost.   The situation was uncomfortable for me, since he was my guest in Switzerland. “Next time I’ll pay, whether here or in New York,” I promised. He thought for a moment and said, “Considering the alternative paths, you’ve actually already paid for half of this dinner.”

 (A chapter on Alternative Histories that is a complete rewriting of a chapter in Fooled by Randomness with, characteristically, a reference to "Russian roulette" that doesn't describe the exact operation.)

 

 

 

***

 

Taleb

[We] prefer to have the wrong map (...) to no map at all.

 

Dobelli

We prefer to have a wrong map to no map at all.

 

 

***

 

Taleb

There are reasons for us to be suspicious of these “right brain/left brain” distinctions and subsequent pop-science generalizations (The Black Swan)

 

Dobelli

So, forget about the “left and right brain” that semi-intelligent self-help books describe.

***

 

Coincidental citations within same context

Taleb

Don't ask a barber if you need a haircut (The Black Swan) (Taleb sources inline to Warren Buffett)

Dobelli

Don't ask a barber if you need a haircut

 

***

 

Taleb

"What happened? The trick is as follows. The con operator pulls 10,000 names out of a phone book. He mails a bullish letter to one half of the sample, and a bearish one to the other half. The following month he selects the names of the persons to whom he mailed the letter whose prediction turned out to be right, that is, 5,000 names. The next month he does the same with the remaining 2,500 names, until the list narrows down to 500 people. Of these there will be 200 victims. An investment in a few thousand dollars’ worth of postage stamp's will turn into several million." (p. 158, FBR)

Dobelli

In fact, you can make a fortune with it by sending a few e-mails. Here’s how: Put together two stock market forecasts— one predicting that prices will rise next month and one warning of a drop. Send the first mail to fifty thousand people and the second mail to a different set of fifty thousand. Suppose that after one month, the indices have fallen. Now you can send another e-mail, but this time only to the fifty thousand people who received a correct prediction. These fifty thousand you divide into two groups: The first half learns that prices will increase next month, and the second half discovers they will fall. Continue doing this. After ten months, around a hundred people will remain, all of whom you have advised impeccably. From their perspective, you are a genius. You have proven that you are truly in possession of prophetic powers. Some of these people will trust you with their money. Take it and start a new life in Brazil.


***

 

Taleb

 

The quality of a decision cannot be solely judged based on its outcome (Fooled by Randomness)

Dobelli

Never Judge a Decision by Its Outcome (title of article in Psychology Today, unreferenced)

***

 

 

Taleb

How data can be bad for you

Period 1: 1 million Monkeys

Period 2: 500,000 winning monkeys

Period 3: 250,000

Period 4: 125,000

Period 5: 62,500

Period 6: 31,250 ...

Period 11 about 1000 straight winning monkeys, geniuses

 ...just by luck

The press will study what is special in the winning monkey. (Presentation and paper "Why It is No Longer a Good Idea To Be In The Investment Industry?")

Dobelli

A quick hypothesis: Say one million monkeys speculate on the stock market. They buy and sell stocks like crazy and, of course, completely at random. What happens? After one week, about half of the monkeys will have made a profit and the other half a loss. The ones that made a profit can stay; the ones that made a loss you send home. In the second week, one half of the monkeys will still be riding high, while the other half will have made a loss and are sent home. And so on. After ten weeks, about one thousand monkeys will be left— those who have always invested their money well. After twenty weeks, just one monkey will remain— this one always, without fail, chose the right stocks and is now a billionaire. Let’s call him the success monkey. How does the media react? It will pounce on this animal to understand its “success principles.” And they will find some: Perhaps the monkey eats more bananas than the others. Perhaps he sits in another corner of the cage. Or maybe he swings headlong through the branches, or he takes long, reflective pauses while grooming. He must have some recipe for success, right? How else could he perform so brilliantly? Spot-on for two years— and that from a simple monkey? Impossible!

[ALSO PUBLISHED WITH NO ATTRIBUTION in Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, on Facebook and in Psychology Today]

***

Taleb

To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers. (Bed of Procrustes)

Dobelli

If you can’t live without news, read newspapers from five, ten, or twenty years ago.

***

Also note that the Guardian article on why one should not read the newspapers was an exposition of Taleb's idea (not found elsewhere) with, characteristically, a reference to a minor point, for "insurance". Yet in an article in 2010, Dobelli recognises the origin of the idea (but doesn't reveal later on): "Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, was one of the first people to recognize news consumption as a serious problem. I owe many of the following insights to him." Later on, without substantial change, it became his idea.

To see how he paraphrases:

 

Taleb: (about the news and why I avoid the press) My problem is that I am not rational and I am extremely prone to drown in randomness. and "not intelligent enough"

Dobelli: We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press.

 

Taleb:Daily news and sugar confuse our system in the same manner.

DobelliNews is to the mind what sugar is to the body.

 

 ***

 

Taleb

Michelangelo was asked by the pope about the secret of his genius, particularly how he carved the statue of David, largely considered the masterpiece of all masterpieces. His answer was: “It’s simple. I just remove everything that is not David.” (Antifragile, as an illustration of via negativa)

Dobelli

The pope asked Michelangelo: “Tell me the secret of your genius. How have you created the statue of David, the masterpiece of all masterpieces?” Michelangelo’s answer: “It’s simple. I removed everything that is not David.” 

(as an illustration of via negativa. It would be a monstrous probabilistic coincidence that Dobelli discovered both this example and via negativa on his own as via negativa is a concept in theology  grounded in the works Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, which I am certain Dobelli did not coincidentally read at the same time I gave him my manuscript, then apply the theological concept to decision making under uncertainty.)

 

 ***

 

Taleb

Happiness; we don’t know what it means, how to measure it, or how to reach it, but we know extremely well how to avoid unhappiness. (Antifragile)

Dobelli

We can’t pinpoint exactly what makes us happy. But we know with certainty what destroys success or happiness.

 

***

 

Taleb

The method began as an avoidance of direct description, leading to a focus on negative description, what is called in Latin via negativa, the negative way(...) Via negativa does not try to express what God is. It just lists what God is not and proceeds by the process of elimination. (Antifragile)

Dobelli

The Greeks, Romans, and medieval thinkers had a term for this approach: via negativa. Literally, the negative path, the path of renunciation, of exclusion, of reduction. Theologians were the first to tread the via negativa: We cannot say what God is; we can only say what God is not.

 

***

Taleb

Knowledge is subtractive, not additive—what we subtract (reduction by what does not work, what not to do), not what we add (what to do). (Antifragile)

We know what doesn't work much better than what works. (Antifragile)

Dobelli

Applied to the present day: We cannot say what brings us success. We can pin down only what blocks or obliterates success.

 

***

 

Taleb

it is explained in a Yiddish proverb that says “Provide for the worst; the best can take care of itself.” This may sound like a platitude, but it is not: just observe how people tend to provide for the best and hope that the worst will take care of itself. (Antifragile)

Elsewhere: "Eliminate the downside"

 

Dobelli

Eliminate the downside, the thinking errors, and the upside will take care of itself. This is all we need to know.

***

 

Taleb

we know a lot more what is wrong than what is right,(...) negative knowledge (what is wrong, what does not work) is more robust to error than positive knowledge (what is right, what works). (Antifragile)

Dobelli

This realization, as simple as it is, is fundamental: Negative knowledge (what not to do) is much more potent than positive knowledge (what to do).

***

 

Taleb

To bankrupt a fool, give him information. (Bed of Procrustes)

 

Dobelli

If you have an enemy, give him information.

(in chapter title)

***

 

Taleb

 

Consider the following statement: “The king died and the queen died.” Compare it to “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” This exercise, presented by the novelist E. M. Forster, shows the distinction between mere succession of information and a plot. But notice the hitch here: although we added information to the second statement, we effectively reduced the dimension of the total. The second sentence is, in a way, much lighter to carry and easier to remember; we now have one single piece of information in place of two. As we can remember it with less effort, we can also sell it to others, that is, market it better as a packaged idea. (The Black Swan)

 

Dobelli

Here are two stories from the English novelist E. M. Forster. Which one would you remember better? (a) “The king died, and the queen died.” (b) “The king died, and the queen died of grief.” Most people will retain the second story more easily. Here, the two deaths don’t just take place successively; they are emotionally linked. Story A is a factual report, but story B has “meaning.” According to information theory, we should be able to hold on to A better: It is shorter. But our brains don’t work that way.

 

***

Taleb

On domain dependence: This inability to automatically transfer knowledge and sophistication from one situation to another, or from theory to practice, is a quite disturbing attribute of human nature. (Antifragile)

Dobelli

A blatant case of domain dependence: He failed to transfer knowledge from the academic world to the private sphere. [but referenced]

***

 

Taleb

 

Consider that of the close to a million professionals employed in economic activities, whether in government (from Cameroon to Washington, D.C.), academia, media, banking, corporations, or doing their own private homework for economic and investment decisions (Antifragile)

 

Dobelli

Or consider the hundreds of thousands of economists— in service of banks, think tanks, hedge funds, and governments— and all the white papers they have published from 2005 to 2007:

 

***

Taleb

 

(...)  “rigorous” papers in economics using fancy statistics are just hot air (Antifragile)

 

Dobelli

(...) It was all hot air. (about papers in economics)

 

 

***

Taleb

 

“Doctor ProfessorFragilista Markowitz does not use his method for his own portfolio (Antifragile)

 

Dobelli

When it came to Markowitz’s own portfolio (...) The Nobel Prize winner was incapable of applying his ingenious process to his own affairs (Dobelli cites Zweig but from context it was clear where example came from)

***

Taleb

...producing gigabytes of information just by talking and corresponding and writing articles. (Antifragile)

Dobelli

The terabytes of information on Bloomberg and Reuters news services. (same context as above)

***

 

84 percent of Frenchmen feel that their lovemaking abilities put them in the top half of French lovers. (The Black Swan)

 

Dobelli

84 percent of Frenchmen estimate that they are above-average lovers. (& in Psychology Today, unreferenced)

 

***

Taleb

I am not testing how much people know, but assessing the difference between what people actually know and how much they think they know. (The Black Swan)

 

Dobelli

measures the difference between what people really know and what they think they know. (also in Psychology Today, unreferenced)

***

Taleb

 

Estimate a range of possible values for that number set in such a way that they believe that they have a 98 percent chance of being right, and less than 2 percent chance of being wrong. In other words, whatever they are guessing has about a 2 percent chance to fall outside their range. For example:... (The Black Swan)

 

Dobelli

 

Choose a range, for example, between one hundred and five hundred, so that your estimate is at least 98 percent correct and only 2 percent off. Write it on a piece of paper before you read on. (in Psychology Today, unreferenced)

***

 

Taleb

Our minds are not quite designed to understand how the world works, but (...) have progeny.

 

Dobelli

Our brain is not built to recognize the truth; instead, its goal is to leave behind as many offspring as possible.

 

***

 

Example of hanging quotation, or someone he cites is cited as if discovered by Dobelli not transcribed from Taleb's.

 

Dobelli

In Antifragile, Taleb describes how all areas of research— from philosophy to medicine to economics— brag about their results: “Like politicians, academia is well equipped to tell us what it did for us, not what it did not— hence it shows how indispensable her methods are.” Pure cherry picking. But our respect for academics is far too great for us to notice this. Or consider the medical profession: To tell people that they should not smoke is the greatest medical contribution of the past sixty years— superior to all the research and medical advances since the end of the Second World War. Physician Druin Burch confirms this in his book Taking the Medicine.



[THEN DOBELLI CITES BURCH's book in Back, as if he read Burch not read my account of Burch. See the discussion here about the ethical aspect.]

***

 

 

 

The list is much longer. There are dozen of additional passages lifted from the INCERTO that are not referenced in the UK edition.

Even titles are taken from my titles. The first chapter "cemetery" is suspect: description (without references) of the survivorship bias that "resembles" my own treatment. "Mosques in the Clouds" (Taleb) became "Why You See Shapes in the Clouds" (Dobelli), etc. Exceedingly coincidental...

COMMENT

Note that the words in Dobelli may not correspond exactly because they were (re)translated from the German. 

Dobelli references Taleb 23 times in the US end notes section (not in the UK version), and a dozen times in text, but not for these, and, what is key, the reader is left under the impression that these thoughts are Dobelli's using Taleb as mere backup, not directly Taleb's.

 

 

The  technical rules are in the note but the ethical rule I try to abide by is as follows: you can write whatever you want so long as the reader knows at any point in time what came from you and what came from someone else's, whether directly or indirectly. At every point.

Also note that citations, pending on context, are part of the plagiarism.  If someone spend years writing a book of citations, such as Peter Bevelin's book A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes with nothing by quotes by other authors, is it ethical for someone to remove Peter Bevelin's name and replace it with his own on grounds that "these citations are by other authors"?

 

***

Note that correspondence of content doesn't imply plagiarism. There is a book EXTREMELY similar to Fooled by Randomness called The Drunkard's Walk. Yet not a shade of plagiarism. Why? the examples and terminology were very different. Some ideas can be rediscovered by two people. And when asked, the author said: Had I known about FBR I wouldn't have written that book. An honorable man.

 

I am now claiming plagiarism; I let the reader view the evidence(in the light of the context). But here is the framework. "Plagiarism isn't in what you reference but in what you don't (via negativa)" (source: Nassim Nicholas Taleb). The standard approach to plagiarism is summarized by Irving Wexham:

 

3.3 Simple plagiarism using a footnote:
A reference is provided but quotation marks are still not used when academic rules for citation demand their use and some words are slightly changed to make the passage appear to be different from the original.

 

3.4. Complex plagiarism using a footnote:
This happens when various changes and paraphrases, from more than one page, are used with a footnote but without appropriate quotation marks. Thus a reference is given, although it may not be to exactly the correct page, and many words and phrases are taken from the original text. Paraphrasing is used to condense lengthy arguments. But, little or no indication is given that the passage is paraphrased, nor are quotation marks used when needed. Another technique, found in this type of plagiarism is a deliberate attempt to change the appearance, but not contents, of the sentences, thus making the plagiarism less noticeable.

 

3.5 Plagiarism with hanging quotations:
Here the plagiarist begins by using a quotation but continues to quote after closing the quotation marks.

3.6. Paraphrasing as plagiarism:
Paraphrasing without reference to the original source and extensive or continuous paraphrasing, even when the source is mentioned, without the addition of material, that seriously interacts with the paraphrased passages or add significant new information, is plagiarism. This type of plagiarism is more difficult to prove. Nevertheless, it is plagiarism. Legitimate paraphrasing takes place only where the source is acknowledged and where the paraphrasing is limited to material that is then discussed, explained, and argued about.

  (Note: the book was already a bestseller in Germany as I pushed for it to be published here --that was the argument I used -- and the book went unnoticed in the US (luckily for Dobelli), so the counter-claim by Hanser that this note is written out of "envy" sounds like a lunacy, to say the least. Also note that he did source a bit more for German editions but not English ones where my work was known).

 

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